Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Flights of Fantasy

Are super-cheap flights now simply a myth? I reveal five tips for finding those elusive low fares.

February, 2003. I arrive in Bilbao, Spain, drenched in relentless pouring rain. I enjoy some fantastic photography exhibitions, and refuge from the downpour at the Guggenheim Museum, then ponder, over a strong Spanish Coffee, my return flight – tomorrow morning.

Surprisingly however, my swift heartbeat of a trip didn’t make me cringe in financial (though not carbon foot print free) guilt. This return flight with Easyjet, as far as I remember, was priced at an unbelievable £3.99. This of course may have allowed for some incidental taxes; but still such a low promotional price is seemingly hard to come by today. A quick search around and this is obvious.

Ryanair advertise cheap flights from Bristol, one of my closest airports, to Venice Marco Polo from £15.99 one way. It doesn’t take an idiot to work out that there will still be taxes and miscellaneous charges added to this price, but wow, how exciting. However a few clicks around the website, inputting various dates that are allegedly included in the departure window for this offer, I simply cannot find any return trips for less than £75. Doh!

In fairness to Ryanair though, I did manage to find flights both to and from Dublin, departing Bristol at the advertised £9.99 each way, with no added taxes. I couldn’t say if there were any hidden costs as I didn’t go as far as booking a trip to Dublin (not yet, anyway), but this was impressive.

Most airlines also adopt a variety of ‘stealth taxes’ for passengers to chew on, after they think they’ve bagged a bargain. I encountered such costs with Thomas Cook’s airline on booking a return flight to Sanford, Florida - £270. A steal, but then factor in taxes, £60 for luggage (as much as I like to think of myself as a light traveller, two weeks in Florida with a shoulder bag…nah), and criminally, £40 to reserve a seat on the flight. The latter is optional, but by the time the booking process was complete, I was wondering just where ‘cheap’ comes into it.

Prices also vary extortionately for the long haul flights to the same destination, on the same day. When tentatively researching flights to Hong Kong, I found the same economy flights, on the same airline listed on two separate websites. The difference being, one showed the cost to be £500, and the other, a stratospherically sky-high £3200!

Despite all my grumbles, there are still ways, with a little bit of investigation, to secure yourself the cheapest possible airline fares. Here are some tips:

  1. Be flexible. Work, kids, and other commitments might make being flexible difficult, but most airline websites have a ‘+/-‘ option to search up to 7 days either side. You’d be surprised how much fares will differ.
  2. Book early. Very early will guarantee you, in most cases, the lowest advance fare the airline offers.
  3. Book late. Last minute booking might bag you a better bargain, but can be riskier. Not the best option for a ‘trip of a lifetime’, but one for the opportunist traveller.
  4. Subscribe to travel newsletters. Travel newsletters such as Travelzoo, a superb example, will update you not just on the best holiday offers, but the best flights. This includes local departures. Also a good one if you are booking in the short term.
  5. Use online flight tools. Skyscanner is the best website I have seen. This will enable you to review a whole month of flights, organise by price, and even select ‘anywhere’ as your destination if you are brave.

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